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Hyundai’s Elantra is a solid player in the crowded compact-car competition, but it also has faced self-imposed limitations, lacking the nifty hatchback variants offered by competitors like the Ford Focus, Mazda 3, and Subaru Impreza. The recently deceased Elantra Touring wagon nibbled at this turf, but lacked the svelte looks and desirability of many of its five-door rivals.

But now more body styles are creeping into the Elantra mix. Previewed at the 2012 Chicago auto show alongside a coupe variant, the Elantra GT represents yet another snappy interpretation of Hyundai’s Fluidic Sculpture design language. Yet, aside from the front fascia it bears little resemblance to the other Elantras.

The front end is set off by Mazda-esque wheel arches that seem more pronounced than those on the sedan, the roofline—punctuated by an optional double sunroof of vast dimensions—slopes back to a forward-canted hatch and wraparound LED taillights. There’s considerable structural commonality with the standard Elantra, but most of what’s visible is unique to the GT.

The GT’s dimensions differ considerably from those of its four-door sibling. The 104.3-inch wheelbase is two inches shorter than the sedan’s, and the GT’s 169.3-inch overall length is nine inches less than that of the four-door. Width—70.1 inches—is about the same, while the GT is a bit taller: 57.9 inches versus 56.5. Its dimensions are positively European, which makes sense given that the GT is sold there as the i30.

The Inside Job

The GT’s interior appointments and trim are similar to the sedan’s, which is to say attractive and high quality. Like other current Hyundais, there’s a pile of standard equipment baked into the $19,170 base price. Examples: heated mirrors, heated front seats, remote keyless entry, air conditioning that also cools the glove box, cruise control, driver-selectable steering modes, Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics, satellite radio, fog lights, a USB port and aux input, and 16-inch aluminum wheels.

There are only two option groups—the performance-oriented Style package ($2750) and the Tech package ($2350). The former adds 17-inch aluminum wheels, slightly firmer suspension tuning, the double sunroof, leather seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a power driver’s seat, aluminum pedal cladding, and auto up-down control for the driver’s window. The Tech gear includes a nav system, a rearview camera (the lens lurks behind the logo in the middle of the rear hatch), auto headlights, dual auto climate control, and proximity-key entry and start.

Hatchbacks are all about interior versatility, and the GT measures up well in this regard. There’s a shallow storage bin under the cargo floor, and the 60/40-split rear seatbacks and rear seat bottoms flop out of the way to expand the space for stuff from 23 cubic feet to 51. Both numbers are near the top of the charts versus the GT’s competitors, and rear-seat legroom is respectable by compact standards.

The Hardware

As its name suggests, the GT was intended to be the sportiest of all Elantras. To that end, it boasts a stiffened structure with lots of high-strength steel—a flimsy structure was one of our biggest gripes with the sedan—as well as curb weights that Hyundai cites as lowest in class. The suspension is firmer, with higher spring rates, monotube Sachs rear dampers, and a hefty rear axle with a slightly bigger anti-roll bar integrated into its vee.

The engine is the Elantra’s universal 1.8-liter DOHC 16-valve four with dual variable valve timing. Max output stands at 148 hp at 6500 rpm and 131 lb-ft of torque at 4700 rpm, while EPA fuel-economy ratings are among the top of the class, at 28 mpg city and 39 highway for both transmissions.

Speaking of boxes of gears, the choices are a standard six-speed manual or a $1000 optional six-speed automatic that offers a manual shifting mode, actuated by flipping the lever fore and aft. There are no steering-wheel-mounted paddles.

So what does this add up to in a world of mountain byways and decreasing radii? If your GT expectations include brisk 0-to-60 times, you may need to scrape together a little more dough for a Mazdaspeed 3 or VW GTI. Although Hyundai claims a power-to-weight edge versus most of its key competitors, the Elantra’s 1.8-liter four is a long-stroke design that doesn’t really like to rev and sounds pretty coarse besides. Further, the six-speed manual is vague in operation, while the automatic’s shifts are smooth but deliberate. The driver-adjustable three-mode electric-assisted steering system (Comfort, Normal, Sport) alters effort; road feel, however, never becomes more than a suggestion.

Transient Redemption

But if the GT’s power isn’t particularly compelling, its cornering response is more satisfying. Body motions are nicely controlled, the car changes directions promptly, and there’s enough grip to inspire confidence in fast corners. Push too hard on corner entries, though, and the GT will aim for the far edge of the road with progressive understeer, typical of a front-drive car. Autocross commandos need not apply.

On the other hand, if you like snappy styling, efficiency, and value-packed pricing, the GT adds an element to the Elantra lineup that was previously missing: hatchback practicality and a dash of European flair. We’ll stay in the line for the Focus five-door, but the Elantra GT’s mélange of attractive features should tempt more than a few folks into Hyundai showrooms

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